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In much the same way that The Comedy of Errors is Shakespeare’s apprenticeship to Plautus and neoclassical comedy, Love’s Labor’s Lost is his apprenticeship to John Lyly’s courtly drama of the 1580s, to the court masque, and to conventions of Petrarchan lyric poetry. The play is word conscious and stylistically mannered to an extent that is unusual even for the pun-loving Shakespeare. The humor abounds in the pert repartee for which juvenile actors were especially fitted, and an extraordinarily high percentage of roles are assigned to boys: four women and a diminutive page (Mote) among seventeen named roles. The social setting is patrician and the entertainments aristocratic. In some ways, little seems to happen in Love’s Labor’s Lost. Fast-moving plot is replaced by a structure that includes a series of debates on courtly topics reminiscent of John Lyly: love versus honor, the flesh versus the spirit, pleasure versus instruction, art versus nature. The songs and sonnets composed by the courtiers for the ladies (4.3.23—116) gracefully caricature the excesses of the Petrarchan love convention (named for the influential Italian sonneteer, Francesco Petrarch): the lovers are “sick to death” with unrequited passion, they catalogue the charms of their proud mistresses, they express their exquisitely tortured emotions through elaborate poetical metaphors, and so on. Stage movements are often masquelike; characters group themselves and then pair off two by two, as in a formal dance. Actual masques and pageants, presented by the courtiers or devised for their amusement, are essential ingredients of the spectacle. Yet beneath the brightly polished surfaces of this sophisticated comedy, we often catch glimpses of a candor and a simplicity that offset the tinsel and glitter. The wits ultimately disclaim (with some qualification) their wittiness, and the ladies confess they have tried too zealously to put down the men; both sides disavow the extreme postures they have striven so hard to maintain. The clowns, though deflated by mocking laughter for their naiveté and pomposity, deflate the courtiers, in turn, for lack of compassion. From this interplay among various forms of courtly wit, Petrarchism, pedantry, and rustic speech emerges a recommended style that is witty but not irresponsibly so, courtly yet sincere, polished and yet free of affectation or empty verbal ornament. This new harmony is aptly expressed by Berowne and Rosaline, whose witty quest for self-understanding in love foreshadows that of Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. The perfect expression of the true style is found in the song at the end of the play; taking the form of a medieval literary debate between Spring and Winter, it beautifully fuses the natural and the artificial into a concordant vision transcending the mundane.
Like The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labor’s Lost is an early comedy that is hard to date with precision. It was published in quarto in 1598 “as it was presented before Her Highness this last Christmas” (1597). The text also purports to be “newly corrected and augmented,” though we know of no earlier published version. Perhaps a play that was already several years old may have seemed in need of stylistic revision. Act 4 does, in fact, contain two long duplicatory passages, suggesting that a certain amount of rewriting did take place. The revisions alter the eaning only slightly, however, and give little support to the widely held notion that Shakespeare must have reworked the ending of his play. The unresolved ending, in which no marriages take place and in which the Princess’s territorial claims to Aquitaine are left unsettled, should be regarded not as unfinished but as highly imaginative and indeed indispensable. The title, after all, assures us that “love’s labors” will be lost, and the Princess affirms the principle of “form confounded” (5.2.517). Some stylistic tests suggest a date between 1592 and 1595, although these characteristics might point to an early play that had been “new corrected and augmented.” Topical hypotheses arise from the quest for Shakespeare’s sources. Since the plot of Love’s Labor’s Lost is derived from no known literary source, may it have been drawn instead from the Elizabethan contemporary scene, poking fun at the pretentiousness of literary figures and intellectuals, such as John Florio, Thomas Nashe, Gabriel Harvey, Sir Walter Ralegh, and George Chapman? Or should we seek topical meaning in the undoubted currency of such names as Navarre (Henry of Navarre, King Henry IV of France), Berowne (Biron, Henry IV’s general), Dumaine (De Mayenne, brother of the Catholic Guise), and others? From the point of view of dating the play, however, such names would have been distastefully controversial in a courtly comedy after 1589. That date saw the beginning in France of a bitter civil conflict between the Catholic Guise and Protestant Navarre, continuing until Henry abjured Protestantism in 1593 and assumed the French throne. In the late 1580s, on the other hand, the tiny kingdom of Navarre would have seemed charmingly appropriate as a setting for Shakespeare’s play. Such an early date, although by no means certain, would also help explain the Lylyan tone of the comedy and its early techniques of versification: the high percentage of rhymed lines in couplets and quatrains, the endstopped blank verse, the use of various sonnet forms and of seven-stress (septenary) couplets, and the like. The world of Love’s Labor’s Lost seems uneventful at first and remarkably unthreatened by danger or evil; only hintingly do reminders of mortality intrude upon the never-never land of Navarre. There are, to be sure, occasional references to the Princess’s “bedrid” father, to the plague, and to a “death’s head,” but the courtiers and we as audience are little prepared for the sudden appearance of Marcade in 5.2 and his announcement that the Princess’s royal father is dead and that all lighthearted entertainments must now give way to mourning. Prior to this belated moment of reversal, the male characters are menaced by nothing worse than loss of dignity through breaking of their oaths. And although oath breaking was a matter of great seriousness to Elizabethan gentlemen, their doing so here is partly excused by the constancy of their devotion once they have fallen in love. In such an artificial world, the preservation of one’s selfesteem assumes undue importance. Using the criteria of wit and self-awareness, Mote and Boyet, as manipulators and controllers of point of view, show us how to laugh at folly in love and pomposity in language. They present to us variations on a theme of courtly behavior, creating, in effect, a scale of manners ranging from the most aristocratic (the King and the Princess, Berowne and Rosaline) to the most absurdly pretentiou (Armado, Holofernes, Nathaniel, and Dull). Nearly all the characters are mocked, but those at the lower end of the scale are especially vulnerable because they are grossly un-self-aware and hence unteachable.
The King and his companions deserve to be mocked because of their transparent lack of self-knowledge, their affectation, and the futility of their vows against love. As Berowne concedes from the start, such defiance of love is at odds with a fundamental natural rhythm that ultimately cannot be thwarted–a rhythm that provides a counterpoint and corrective to the frequently artificial rhythms of courtly life. This natural rhythm asserts itself throughout the play until it becomes starkly insistent in the death of the Princess’s royal father and in the resulting twelve-month delay of all marriages.
Hypocritical defiance of love is doomed to comic failure and satirical punishment. The basic devices used to expose this hypocrisy are misdirected love letters and overheard speech, both devices of unmasking. Appropriately, the young ladies administer their most amusing comeuppance to the men by seeing through their Muscovite masks. The code governing this merry conflict is one of “mock for mock” and “sport by sport o’erthrown” (5.2.140, 153). In a prevailing legal metaphor, the young men are guilty of forswearing their written oaths, and must be punished for their perjury. Love is metaphorically a war, a siege, a battle of the sexes in which the women come off virtually unscathed. The language of love is that of parry and thrust (with occasional bawdy overtones). The men naturally are chagrined to be put down by the ladies but are on their way to a cure: they learn to laugh at their own pretentiousness and, even if hyperbolically, vow to cast aside all “affectation” and “maggot ostentation” in favor of “russet yeas and honest kersey noes” (lines 403—16). At the same time, Berowne’s renunciation of artful language is cast in the form of a perfect fourteen-line sonnet; Shakespeare is having it both ways.
The clownish types are generally more victimized by their affectations. The fantastical Don Armado, as lover of Jaquenetta the country wench, apes the courtly conventions of the aristocrats to whose company he aspires. Enervated by base passion, penning wretched love letters, and worshiping a dairymaid as though she were an unapproachable goddess, he is a caricature of the Petrarchan lover. Generally, however, the affectations of the comic characters have to do with language rather than love. Armado himself is known as a phrasemaker, “a plume of feathers,” a “weathercock”: “Did you ever hear better?” (4.1.94—5). His letter to Jaquenetta, read aloud for the Princess’s amusement, is an exquisite spoof of John Lyly’s exaggeratedly mannered style, called Euphuism: “Shall I command thy love? I may. Shall I enforce thy love? I could. Shall I entreat thy love? I will. What shalt thou exchange for rags? Robes. For tittles? Titles. For thyself? Me” (lines 80—3). Here we see the repeated antitheses, the balanced structure (reflected also in the structure of the play), and the alliterative effects that so intoxicated literary sophisticates of the 1580s. In a similar spirit, other comic types are distinguished by their verbal habits: Constable Dull by his malapropisms (anticipating Dogberry and Elbow); Holofernes by his Latinisms, philological definitions, and varied epithets; Nathaniel by his deference to Holofernes as a fellow bookman; and Costard by his amiable but unlettered confusion over such grandiose terms as “remuneration” and “guerdon” (3.1.167—71). The word-conscious humor of the play gives us parodies of excruciatingly bad verse (as in Holofernes’s “extemporal epitaph on the death of the deer,” 4.2.49—61), teeth-grating puns (enfranchise, one Frances, 3.1.118—19), and the longest Latin word in existence (honorificabilitudinitatibus, 5.1.41).
A little of this sort of thing goes a long way, and occasional scenes of verbal sparring are overdone. Shakespeare tries to have it both ways, reveling in linguistic self-consciousness while laughing at its excesses. Yet the self-possessed characters do at least come to a realization that verbal overkill, like Petrarchan posturing, must be cast aside in favor of decorum and frankness in speech. There will always be “style,” but it must be an appropriate style. The comic characters at their best help emphasize this same point. Costard especially is blessed with a pragmatic folk wisdom and simplicity that enable him to stand up unflinchingly to the ladies and gentlemen. He does not hesitate to tell the Princess that she is the “thickest and the tallest” of the ladies, for “truth is truth” (4.1.48). His forbearing description of Nathaniel as “a little o’erparted” (5.2.580—1) in the role of Alexander serves as a gentle rebuke to the wits, whose caustic observations on “The Nine Worthies” have gotten out of hand. Even Holofernes justly chides, before retiring in confusion as Judas Maccabaeus, that “This is not generous, not gentle, not humble” (line 626).
Even if the stylistic self-consciousness makes for labored reading at times, the play can be wonderfully funny in the theater. It provides numerous opportunities for sight gags, and it revels in comic character types who are funny even when their jokes are feeble. For all his indebtedness to Lyly’s courtly drama in this play, Shakespeare has shaped it to the demands of a popular audience. Perhaps the greatest source of amusement is in Shakespeare’s depiction of the war of the sexes. Nowhere else does he give us male characters who are so consistently baffled and tormented by women. The young women know from the start who they are and what men they are attracted to; we never see the women fall in love, for they have evidently made up their minds already. The men, conversely, flounder about absurdly from one inelegant posture to another, from futile asceticism to curiosity, infatuation, betrayal of their oaths, attempts to conceal their lovesickness from one another, and collapse of all pretenses when they are caught out. They have yet to come to terms with their own inner feelings and must be taught–and tortured–by the self-possessed young ladies. The men are at their most absurd when, having confessed to falling in love, they now rival one another in boasting of their respective mistresses and in striving to see who will succeed first. It never crosses their minds that they might be rejected now that they have deigned to come forward as suitors.
The masquing in Act 5 is thus a device by which the women can test and even humiliate the young men to show them how flighty and uncontrolled are their unfamiliar new emotions. The uncompleted ending of the play expresses an unfinished process: the young men must still apprentice themselves to mature selfreflection before they can be deemed worthy as husbands. Ironically, the young women consign the men to the very sort of celibate exercise in self-understanding that the men thought they were committing themselves to at the play’s start. In these terms, too, we can see that some of the play’s subplot characters are variations on a theme of male folly in love: Costard is the self-assured peasant, while Armado is the self-abnegating aristocrat. Armado exaggerates everything foolish that the aristocratic men have undergone and in Act 5 is fittingly the center of an absurd pageant, through which he becomes the comic scapegoat. Watching his performance in the pageant of “The Nine Worthies,” the young aristocrats can laugh at the absurdities of male posturing and self-abasement that they are now slowly learning to control in themselves.
Above all, then, it is the play’s unexpected ending that introduces an invaluable new insight on the courtiers’ brittle war of wits. The death of the Princess’s father brings everyone back to reality, to sober responsibility, to an awareness that marriage requires thoughtful decision. Devouring Time has entered the never-never land of Navarre’s park. The song at the end, appropriately cast in the form of a dialogue or debate, gives us the two voices of Spring and Winter, love and death, carnival and Lent, to remind us that human happiness and self-understanding are complex and perishable. And the song reminds us as well, in its “living art,” of that subtle power of the imagination, which transforms time, love, and death into artistic creation.